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Spy Kids 3: Game Over

fun for the little ones, but the series is getting stale
Get your little ones ready for the game of their lives, cuz `Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over' will tickle their little bitty funny bones. This third installment of the popular `Spy Kids' series is like its predecessors in that it's high-tech, high-energy, high-fun, and high on the pro-family moral messages. What's more, it's in 3D, which requires disposable glasses, handed out at the theater. On the downside, the Spy Kids theme seems worn out, the actors have out-grown their roles, and the strong family-values messages are disingenuous and schmaltzy. In short, the cow's been milked for all its got.

But, anyway, back to the fun.

In this new adventure, Juni and Carmen Cortez find themselves on a mission to stop the release of a virtual-reality video game, aptly titled, `Game Over'. It is purported to be the best video game ever, and lines outside toy stores are growing around the country. But, the ISS has learned that the infamous `level five' captures the mind of the player, entrapping him eternally within the game. The threat, of course, is that `The Toymaker', played by Sylvester Stallone, is really out to control the minds of our youth, and thus, our future.

It turns out that The Toymaker himself is already entrapped in the game, so the only way to stop him is to actually play it. The movie begins when Juni, eager to be an `independent PI' at the age of 10, is called back to duty to the ISS to enter the game and find his sister Carmen, who had already tried to invade it, but was suspended in level 4. Juni catches up to her with the dubious help of a few experienced beta test players, who are determined to reach the 5th level on their own.

The true essence of the film is to simply show the video game, and with the 3D glasses, the 80% of the screen time that game consumes is definitely fun and worth the ride. The funny thing is, `Spy Kids 3D' makes no attempts to hide the fact that the only reason for the film is to show game. To wit, the plot points are meaningless, even to the point where the script itself acknowledges it: Juni asks why the Toymaker is caught in the game, and the answer is a humorous hand-wave, `Oh, it just happens.' The plot and characters are hurriedly scooted along to the start of the game, which then goes on and on and on, till the end, when scores of famous cameo appearances pepper the screen, all having fun and making statements about the importance of family, and yada yada yada.

Oh, it's not that there is anything wrong with such pro-family messages. But conspicuously downplayed are the genuine circumstances and feelings that were the impetus in the first, and best, of the Spy Kids trilogy.

The 3D aspect of the film involves wearing glasses that give depth to the objects on the screen. There are two ways to do this, and unfortunately, Spy Kids 3D uses the old-fashioned way, from the 1950s, where one lens is red and the other blue. The film is shot with the two colors shifted in opposite directions, and depth is perceived by the distance of the shift. Unfortunately, this mutes colors so much, that the beautiful and surreal colors expressed in the digital photography are lost. I can only assume that this was intentional, so as to give the video game its own sense of other-worldliness, which again, was nice.

With all its wild-riding and fun, Spy Kids 3D is just a movie for kids, unlike the first of the series, which was much smarter and hence, enjoyable by adults, too. So, best to drop off the little tykes at the theater with a baby sitter, and go shopping for a while. But, don't buy anything that's red and blue plaid, or your kids just may throw up on you.


Yes, this beautiful docu-epic drama is good... but not THAT good.
Seabiscuit, the true story of a knobby-kneed racehorse and three men down on their luck, is the latest Docu-Epic from Hollywood, beautifully filmed in California, with its signature late-afternoon golden light, close-up intimate shots of emotional facial expressions, and the freedom-like feeling anyone gets when watching a horse run freely in a pasture. It's the telling of an American dream: a depression-era drama about down-trodden misfits and an unlikely animal hero who overcome the odds. Yes, this two-hour and twenty minute cinematic masterpiece is sure to grab the public by their little heartstrings, and send them tearfully home with hankies and sniffles, proud to be a member of that great expanse of land between the oceans known as…. America.

Ahem. Ok, the more sober description goes this way: Laura Hillenbrand's wonderfully-crafted book about the race-horse, Seabiscuit, is going to be this year's mid-summer blockbuster.

It's not a terrible movie by the home stretch of the imagination, but like my early characterization, `Seabiscuit' is a huge glorification of a documentary intended only to show the best side of an otherwise ratty bunch of well-meaning characters. Jeff Bridges leads the pack as Charles Howard, the flamboyant bicycle repairman-turned-millionaire, who purchases Seabiscuit at the behest of his recently hired trainer, Tom Smith, played by Chris Cooper. Smith, a sort of horse whisperer who was known for his quiet nature and his ability to get along with horses better than people, meets Red Pollard, the infamous jockey, played by Tobey McGuire, who reportedly lost 25 pounds to fill the part. Seabiscuit and the three men, all down and out underdogs with their independent and wretched pasts, all helped revive each other through Seabiscuit, and give the American people a reason to hope during the Great Depression.

The movie is another retelling of a timeless theme that always wins with audiences: good-guy losers beating the odds. When you mix a sure-fire premise with gorgeous cinematography, you can't lose. And this movie won't lose either. But that doesn't mean the movie is as good as the reviews – or the box office – will claim it is. The main problem with the film is that it tries to serve two masters. That is, it's both a documentary and a dramatic Hollywood big-screen Epic. The movie's `documentary' aspect leaves a lot of things out, and ends on a great, wonderful, victorious event, despite the real story ending quite differently. Consequently, the film's `drama' suffers, because it leaves out the deeper and more disturbing character flaws and relationships that truly fleshed out the characters. The film does manage to stir emotions about a profoundly difficult era with historian-narrated commentary and photos, but the context doesn't translate well to how the characters think or behave. In short, the movie's parts are all great, but they don't tie together well-enough to deserve the praise the movie is receiving.

All in all, Seabiscuit is a really good-looking film, with great lighting, epic-like proportions, terrific acting,, but there is nothing really interesting about the film except for the story itself, which is better told by Hillenbrand's book.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Fun for the whole family, whether you've been on the ride or not.
Ahoy Maties! Grab your swords and board the dreaded pirate ship, the Black Pearl, and sail back in time to when you were a kid at Disneyland, going through the boat ride, `Pirates of the Caribbean.' Whatever your imagination could have conjured up, it couldn't possibly compare to the wonderment, fun and childhood excitement that the live-action film delivers today. This is, in many ways, the perfect film, because it not only does exactly what it intends, but it does so without a hint of corniness, overdone computer graphics, sappy dialog, or boring plot line.

Sure, the movie is just for fun, and you can enjoy it for what it is if you go into the theater with the same sense of fun that you'd have going into the ride at Disney parks. In fact, just about every scene from the robotic namesake ride (that's over 30 years old) is featured conspicuously in the film, causing giggles of nostalgia from the audience.

The plot is classic fairy tale formula for a Swashbucklin' Pirate story that involves pirates, fair maidens, a hero to save her, royalty, and an intricate intertwining of relationships that make things oh so juicy. Here, Johnny Depp leads the pack as Jack Sparrow, a lone pirate on the Caribbean Sea, looking for his lost ship, the Black Pearl. It'd been commandeered years earlier by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who'd lead a mutiny against him. For Sparrow to get his ship back, he must commandeer one of his own, so he picks one from the Royal British Navy. But first, he must cross swords with a young sword maker, Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom.

In the meantime, Barbossa has his own agenda: to break a curse set upon the crew after they stole ancient Aztec gold artifacts. To do this, they must return the gold, plus spill the blood from a descendant of the original captain of the Black Pearl that pirated the loot in the first place. Through misidentification, they capture Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley, who is subsequently kidnapped. In this scene, Geoffrey Rush delivers a brilliant monologue about his plight as a cursed pirate.

At this point, Turner and Sparrow set out as partners to find the Black Pearl: Turner wants to save the girl, and Sparrow wants to get his ship back. Over the course of the film, as secrets are revealed and events unfold, the tension and action builds to a rewarding and pleasingly climactic ending.

Essentially, the movie has it all: cartoony sword-fighting, skeletons drinking rum, dream-like scenery that captures the spirit of the dark, imaginary world of pirates swinging between ships, ladies having to walk the plank, and valiant heroes saving them. With the youthful target audience in mind, a more cynical viewer looking for a more intense or less `comedic' tone might be disappointed; similarly, an overly protective parent might be concerned for their youngsters' fear factor at some special effects, but these are all phantom concerns. `Pirates of the Caribbean' as a great mid-summer hit that's sure to please the whole family.

Head of State

Chris Rock could -- and *should* -- do much better
Chris Rock has made an interesting name for himself. He's a black comedian who's been in almost 60 feature films; a writer and co-writer for movies and TV shows like Saturday Night Live; and is a man with strong political opinions. So, with all that talent and experience, you'd think that if he were to write and produce a political satire, it'd be a mix of biting comedy with a message.

If only that were the case with `Head of State.' Instead of biting satire poking fun at the political system, there's a collection of gag jokes that, in themselves are funny, but neither politically pertinent or satirical in any way. What's more the romantic-comedy subplot is way too prominent, elbowing out the main theme of the film.

Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a Washington, D.C. alderman, who's a man of the people. He not only does good things in his neighborhood, but even the drug dealers like him. When the existing democratic presidential candidates unexpectedly die, Gilliam finds himself selected by the party to replace them, all in the name of a politically ambitious underling who sets up Rock to lose in hopes of securing the nomination in the next election. Through a series of gags and mishaps, Gilliam not only gets elected, but gets the girl too.

The film certainly has the gags, many of which are genuinely funny. In fact, if it were all gags, a la `Airplane' and `The Naked Gun', then Rock's film would have been surprisingly refreshing. But, the humor was diluted by attempts at a serious side – both on the political front and the romantic front – and the script fails to know when one ends and the other begins. What's more, the serous or romantic sides to the film, gags notwithstanding, were just plain silly.

It's not that the formula doesn't work. It's been done many times before, such as `Dave', starring Kevin Klein, and Warren Beatty's `Bulworth'. In each case, the `candidate' was unlikely and over the edge, but their straight talk and unconventional approach to politics appealed to the people and resonated with movie audiences. In essence, using this theme as the platform for satirical poignancy was very effective (from an entertainment perspective, not necessarily as a valid social commentary). In the end, the reason these films worked is because it was clear where the gags end and the seriousness begins.

On a separate note with respect to today's current events, I couldn't help but notice that it's because of reality that this movie is actually more disturbing than it should be. In fact, it harkens back to the good old days of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Back then, people didn't take politics or world events seriously at all, as evidenced by the fact that we had actual, serious attempts at the presidency from people such as Donald Trump, Ross Perot, and yes, even Warren Beatty. You'd never see those names in mainstream press in today's environment. Perhaps `Head of State' should have been released during a time when society's perception of politics and the presidency wasn't so important. But today, it's just plain eerie and disturbing.

Bruce Almighty

God, I loved this movie. :-)
There's nothing like a good comedy flick to lead in the summer, and Jim Carrey's, `Bruce ALMIGHTY!' is the best of its breed. It's formula, to be sure, and all been done before, but `Bruce' is funnier, wittier, smarter, and – odd as this might sound – more sophisticated than its predecessors. It's as though Carrey and his filmmaking partners refined the comedy/romance formula to a science, because this film does exactly what it intended to do: entertain.

Like previous Carrey films, `Bruce ALMIGHTY!' follows the familiar plot line where a down-on-his-luck guy gets a magical ability, fools with it for a while for fun and laughs, and after he goofs up and learns his big life lesson, walks away with the girl in the end. In fact, most Carrey comedies follow this story, most with director, Tom Shadyac at the helm. This time, Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a TV reporter who always gets the humorous lifestyle stories, but never the big news stories that will give him a future as an anchorman. True, he's great at his job, has a great girlfriend, and seems to enjoy life to the fullest. But, Bruce wants more out of life. His ambitions exceed his abilities, so bad things keep happening to him. When he finally breaks down in a bout of self-pity, he blames God for all his failures. God, in response, has a meeting with Bruce, and decides to give him all the powers that He, himself, possesses. With that, Bruce goes on a wild ride of performing magical acts and other deeds of self-indulgence to `right the wrongs' that he feels were done to him. Through a series of hilarious and well-crafted gags, complete with special effects, Bruce eventually makes the big mistake that makes him realize that being God isn't all that easy, and that he was perfectly happy with his life as it was.

There is no question that any film that broaches the subject of God will noodle the zealots one extreme, or disgruntle the intellectual community on the other, unless it delivers poignant messages, or makes philosophically acute observations about the meaning of life. `Bruce' doesn't even attempt to address these tougher subjects; but it carefully inserts a couple one-line commentaries that make us unambiguously aware that yes, the filmmakers are avoiding the subject, and they know we're watching for it. This is done so well, in fact, that it's part of what makes the movie so appealing to a wide audience.

As for Carrey himself, It's true that Jim's a unique actor, and he's shown capabilities far beyond the notorious over-the-top physical comedy he's best known for. But, his funny side is still where his genius lies, and he has traditionally fostered a relationship with a rather narrow audience because of his style. So, those who are not Jim Carrey fans might find it hard to bring themselves to see `Bruce ALMIGHTY!' But, I think they'd be surprised; his humor is less reckless, arbitrary, and irrelevant to the storyline. Instead, `Bruce' is funny largely because he remains within the framework and context of the story, supporting characters, and the persona he endows in his own character.

To that end, all the supporting actors are perfectly cast as well. Morgan Freeman depicts `God' exactly as I'd like to see Him, and Jennifer Aniston as Bruce's girlfriend makes her relationship with him all the more believable. I should also mention Steven Carell's role as a news anchor is tearfully hilarious in his own right. He came from Comedy Central's `The Daily Show', where he also played a TV reporter for a ½-hour show that spoofs the news nightly.

In the end, `Bruce ALMIGHTY!' succeeds in doing exactly what it intended to do, and works at every level. Even the use of a few four-letter words didn't seem inappropriate (it's rated PG-13). I'd say it's perfect for the whole family, and a refreshing way to start the summer.

The In-Laws

funny in spots, but ultimately a flop
What do you get when you put a neurotic Jewish foot doctor from New York together with a CIA agent on a case to bust an arms-smuggling ring? And then have their kids get married? You get Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas as `The In-Laws', a remake of a film by the same name from 1979. Unfortunately, the marriage of these two actors doesn't seem as compatible.

Both movies follow essentially the same plot line: the daughter of a conservative and traditional family man from New York is about to marry the son of a CIA agent who happens to be in the midst of cracking a huge international case wide open. When things go inadvertently awry, the fun begins as the doctor gets caught up in the scheme and almost blows the whole thing, and gets himself and his soon-to-be in-law killed at the same time.

What made the original movie work is precisely what failed about the current version: the movie is not supposed to be about the `sting', it's supposed to be about the relationship between the neurotic in-laws. In the case of the doctor, Albert Brooks is perfectly cast as the doctor/father, blundering and fearful exactly as you expect him to be, as he faces everything from near death to being in a hot-tub with a dangerous (and gay) arms dealer. He eventually learns to ease his anxiety and deal with his situation, just like his predecessor, Alan Arkin, did in the original film.

The problem with the film has more to do with Michael Douglas' role. Unlike his predecessor, Peter Falk, Douglas is far too polished. The role of Steve Tobias is supposed to be that of a quirky, unassuming and somewhat innocent but lovable guy, much the character Falk made famous in his series, `Columbo.' With Tobias, you never really know whether his stories are true, or if he can be trusted, or even if he knows what he's doing. This would drive anyone nuts if they were in a tight situation with this guy, and Falk was made for this role. Douglas, however, is quite the contrary. He's not nuts enough – he can't be; that's just not him. He's too good looking. In the original film, you never really knew if Tobias was a CIA agent till quite close to the end of the film, whereas the new film makes only one half-hearted attempt at hiding the fact, but it doesn't really fool anyone. Because of how poorly Douglas was cast, and how too many quirky aspects of the film were replaced by high-tech effects and more modern and threatening villains, there is no chemistry between anyone to carry the movie.

On the positive side, `The In-Laws' certainly had its share of comedic lines, and I found myself laughing far more often than the movie deserved to be laughed at. But that's me. I love Albert Brooks, and I make no apologies or excuses for being easily amused. That said, I left the film disappointed. In fact, so much so, that I rented the original film again, just to enjoy it one more time. Not that I want to turn this into a video review, but it should be noted that the original 1979 version is well-worth seeing, especially if you were a Columbo fan.

25th Hour

noteworthy performances don't quite save it from apathy
Spike Lee's `25th Hour' has so many interesting qualities to it, both as a movie and as a sociological perspective of the director himself, that it's a shame the film's weaker elements keep it from being more profound. It's essentially a `portrait film', where it's more about painting interesting character profiles and seeing how they respond to situations, than it is about plot or character development. To Lee's credit, he not only painted clear, believable characters, but was additionally ambitious in his desire to profile a subculture outside of his own. But, the film's effectiveness in the end couldn't rely solely on the portraits he painted, despite how well they were done. It required more storytelling elements to breath life into the project.

As for the portraits, the hero is Montgomery Brogan, played by Ed Norton, an unsuspecting drug dealer, who reevaluates his life in the 24 remaining hours before facing a seven-year jail term. Brogan is an Irish-Catholic with an upper-middle-class background – not exactly the kind of person one immediately thinks of when someone says, `drug dealer.' In his last hours, he reaches out to friends from years past, philosophizes with them about life, how he got where he is, and what kind of frightful future awaits him behind bars. The movie follows him throughout a day, and we watch as he finishes unfinished business, ties loose ends in his family life, and reaches out to those he considered to be his `best friends,' now that he's come to terms with his life.

Where Lee takes his risk is by placing all his eggs in this one basket: portraits. There is enough plot to give characters reason for their self-examinations-but character development is essentially non-existent. That's ok, the goal of `portrait films' is to paint a still life picture that profiles a character so as to examine aspects of them in different life situations. Lee has always been good at character portrayals, but the departure here is the singular focus on nothing but portraiture. Indeed, he's begging audiences to evaluate not just the film, but Lee himself: what's his racial view of a subculture that's not his own? Is he making a political statement, airing his discontent, or genuinely interested in his characters by depicting them fairly and authentically. It's almost too obvious that Lee is keenly aware that we are aware of his branching out.

As far as the portraits go, Lee's risk pays off. Norton's portrayal not only seems believable to us for what we do know about such characters, but we believe what we're told of what we don't know about them. That's hard to do, not just because gaining insight into others' cultures is hard, but if you do it well, you often bring upon yourself more controversy than if you'd done it poorly. A perfect example is the 1994 film, `Fresh', which depicted a very realistic black drug culture in New York and a young 11-year-old's struggle to escape it. The film gained notoriety, not just because of its shocking and disturbing authenticity, but because the writer/director was Jewish from a well-to-do background. By showing a subculture in less-than-flattering light, you're sure to get attacked as being racist or exploitive, especially if you're an outsider.

Yet, despite Lee's seemingly accurate portrayal of his characters, he's going to be safe from controversy for a few reasons. First, unlike `Fresh', which had a compelling and disturbing plot line, `25th Hour' will likely leave many audience members looking at their watch, as the film does tend to go on for a while without much development. Here, Lee's existential commentaries could have either been pruned back a little, or given a wider array of ideas to consider.

More importantly, none of the characters have an important enough purpose to each other. Their relationships don't contribute to a better insight into the existential questions Brogan asks or faces, nor do they have discussions of such ideas, beyond a few introductory observations. Their screen time is used solely to paint more detailed pictures of these people, but without a tighter connection between them in the storyline, it's like viewing a set of incongruent pictures in a gallery: they're fine as individual works, but where's the coherency? To make matters worse, the medium of film provides a wider canvas than portraiture, so you either have to fill the emptiness, or have characters punctuate through it. (In other words, give them meaning.)

It's hard for me to pan `25th Hour' because its qualities are noteworthy and the performances are great. However, I resist more enthusiastic praise because Lee didn't take advantage of his opportunities for multi-dimensionality. He could have chosen to develop more aspects to the film without compromising its `portrait' quality, rendering it dryly forgettable in the end.

Satin Rouge

interesting for americans, bold for the filmmaker, but simple for the film viewer
`Satin Rouge' is the second film from Raja Amari from Tunisia, an island off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea. As is usually the case with foreign films that go through scrupulous hurdles before making it to the United States, it's pretty good. The appeal to American audiences will probably be limited to the art-film culture, which is unfortunate, since what the film has most to offer is the stuff that mainstream Americans should see: a look into every day life in a Middle Eastern country where Arab and Western cultures integrate well.

The plot of `Satin Rouge' is rather simple: Lilia is a widow who wants to live life again. Her teenage daughter is getting interested in boys and integrating more western ways into her lifestyle. One night, while trying to follow her daughter's activities into the night, Lilia inadvertently discovers a cabaret. She enters to find women belly dancing in skimpy outfits, reacting both horrified and intrigued at the same time. Her desire to find her own individuality and break the moralistic mold of her upbringing has her frequenting the cabaret nightly. The other dancers befriend her, and before she knows it, she's belly-button deep in the club scene herself. As the plot thickens and romances develop, Lilia and her daughter both find themselves learning more about life than either of them bargained for.

There's no question this is a cute movie. The characters are amiable, although none of them are particularly deep, nor do they find themselves confronting and resolving difficult issues beyond the plot points. It's a simple little story, and Amari certainly has developed a great talent for writing and producing. However, `Satin Rouge' still looks and smells like a low-budget indi-film, which, despite it's clear entertainment value and obvious potential for future films, the movie is rough around the edges. The range of character profiles is limited, characters don't exhibit any dramatic `risk', and the plot line is moderately predictable, except for the very innovative and apt ending. Yet, the lead up to it was fully predictable, and the time spent getting there was longer than it needed to be. This is called, "bridging", and the idea is to avoid taking the viewer over an obvious path that will lead an inevidible other side. If we all know it's coming, either get there, or explore developments that contribute to the plot or character profiles. In this case, the delivery is "adequate," but not exemplary, a common mistake made by newer filmmakers.

The best part of the film is the intimate lens peering into a world and culture that is totally unfamiliar Americans. The depiction of old-world Arab and Western cultures was done so matter-of-factly and unintentional – something that only we Westerners would notice – that I felt a great sense of authenticity that what we were seeing was truly real. This aspect of `Satin Rouge' is not necessarily unique. Most films that come from Iran also illustrate these same features of their society, which would surprise and encourage most Americans as well. To this end, I think it's extremely important for the film industry to encourage and assist in more films from the Middle East region get into our country. We need it.

Auto Focus

character profile is good, but story isn't interesting enough to tell
`Autofocus' is the story of Bob Crane (played by Greg Kinnear), who had the title character in the hit TV series, "Hogan's Heroes" in the late 1960's. The interesting thing about the real-life story of Bob Crane is the fact that he was brutally murdered in 1978 by a killer who was never convicted, even though everyone knew who it was. The movie examines how fame and fortune in the entertainment business can turn someone's life upside down – in this case, by feeding a sex-obsession to man who can't control himself.

The plot of the film is rather straightforward: it depicts Crane's life as a loving father of two and husband in a traditional American home in the 60s, and how his career lead to his demise. It starts with his job as a radio disc jockey when his big break comes: to play the lead role in Hogan's Heroes. As his career begins to move, he befriends a man named John Carpenter (played by Willem Dafoe), an electronics wizard who introduces Crane to the emerging world of Video Tape. The men become friends and quickly learn of each other's affection for women. At first, their relationship starts as any other friendship would, but Crane's emerging stardom provides opportunities to meet and seduce women, feeding both men's sexual appetites. Crane's will-power erodes as his deviation into sexual hysteria consumes him, breaking up two of his marriages, and alienating his children and everyone else in his career. He and Carpenter eventually rely solely on each for psychological stability. The stage is set for disaster when Crane finally becomes determined to `get out' of the whole sex thing, and try to make a go at his life again.

The problem with making a movie based on a true and well-known story, is that everyone knows what's going to happen, so the purpose of the film is to help us feel what the characters feel on their way there. The relationship between Crane and Carpenter is `interesting', but not nearly as strong as it needed to be to give the story a better sense of purpose. Very little else about Crane or Carpenter is explored, other than their sexual obsession, making them rather two-dimensional.

On the other hand, the best part of the film is the filmmaking itself. The scenery, mood and cinematography mirror Crane's state of mind fluidly throughout the film. From beginning to end, the psychological deterioration is not only depicted well by Kinnear, but reflected well in the supporting visual and audible elements.

In the end, the Bob Crane story itself is not that unique or interesting in the realm of similar stories of how Hollywood has destroyed the lives of movie stars, so Autofocus had a tough road to hoe. If the movie were supposed to be just a portrait of man, it should have expanded on other sides of Crane to flesh him out as a complete character, but it didn't. Aside from the excellent cinematic aesthetics, the movie was rather ho-hum. Wait for it on video if you're a big Hogan's Heroes fan.

Love in the Time of Money

despite positive qualities, it's not for the casual film goer
`Love in the Time of Money' is an adaptation of `Reigen," Arthur Schnitzler's scandalous 1897 play that follows a daisy-chain of sexual encounters, where one person moves to the next, until it comes full circle to the first in the chain. This debut film from Peter Mattei, also a playwright and theater director, shows a promising filmmaker, but watch out for the cautionary yellow flags.

The classic plot line has been seen by many films and stage productions, each with its own comment on how sex plays a role in the human spirit. In Mattei's version, sex is used solely as a coping mechanism when all else fails. In each vignette, an emotionally depressed person emotionally capitulates to another who appears to be emotionally stable. As the needy weans off the strength of the stronger, who is in turn strengthened by being needed, both try to fill their emotional reservoir. This ultimately leads to sex, but its short-term effects prove inadequate. When the realities of the stronger person come crashing down, this never-ending chain of events perpetuates from one person to the next.

The best part of the film is how very intense, complex human character is painted so concisely using the most minimal of brush strokes. Make no mistake, the characters are very abstract, and do not necessarily represent how we might envision realistic dialog, but that's not the point. Instead, their features are very intentional, accented in deliberate ways to punctuate and exaggerate primal motivations, frailties, and lusts in order to illustrate how we cope with life.

Much can be said about the script, though not all good -- it is inconsistent at times -- but it is, in many ways, artful and skillful in its depiction of deeper complex character profiles. While it isn't the audience's responsibility to recognize the difficulty in accomplishing this task with only a few short lines of dialog, Mattei does it well for a debut filmmaker. That said, won't appeal to most audiences, nor would he enjoy such leniency from critics in future films.

The worst parts of the film are too noteworthy not to chop several point off the top. First, the title itself (and the production notes) suggests that the reason for people's emotional and spiritual deterioration is somehow attributable to a financially rich society, where waste mirrors our loss of our values, purpose and meaning of life. Yet, that premise is never presented as a backdrop to any of the vignettes in the movie, and in only one case has money been the instrument of a character's downfall. The fact that the filmmaker lost his intended vision of the film is also evident in other aspects of the film, leaving its entire message or purpose unclear. One common element is the use of sex as the great savior of the spirit, yet no one ever wins, but this is more of a statement of the obvious than a compelling message or theme.

Despite my enthusiasm for the film's positive points, `Love in the Time of Money' is not for the causal film-goer. It requires a more adept indie-film aficionado and mature student of human nature to better appreciate its better qualities. Alas, the film's drawbacks, especially its lack of a more coherent message, leave it dry in the end. Still, I have to end on a high note, by giving it credit for depicting deeper, complex character profiles in short time-slices, a quality not easily done by debut filmmakers. Bravo for that.

The Life of David Gale

anti-capital punishment film pretends to walk down middle of road
Talk about having your expectations slashed. I never felt a letdown more profoundly than Alan Parker's `The Life of David Gale'. This, from one of my favorite directors, responsible for such monumental works as `Midnight Express', and socially significant and poignant films like `Citizen Ruth.' It's not that the film was awful, it's more the sinking feeling that an A+ honor student just got sloppy.

The movie's plot centers around a philosophy professor and outspoken anti-capital punishment activist, David Gale (played by Kevin Spacey), who's been convicted of murder and sent to death row. Four days before his execution, he grants a three-day interview with a reporter, Bitsey Bloom (played by Kate Winslet) in an attempt to prove his innocence. The bulk of the movie is Gale's story to Bloom detailing events leading up to the present moment.

The film is billed as a thriller, and with a top-notch marquee of name-brand actors, and some moderately suspenseful moments, the film does have its fair share of entertainment value. However, the film never really rises above three pivotal problems.

First, the `thriller' genre of the film is really a thinly veiled attempt to wrap a story around an otherwise overtly slanted political statement against the death penalty. Not that there's anything wrong with using cinema to express an ideology, but it becomes beneath the quality of a director to do so simplistically, and at the expense of his own craft. For Parker, this is surprising.

To be specific, the `thriller' aspect of the film is weak, because so much obvious material is conspicuously withheld, that it becomes somewhat predictable. What's more, people's actions and behaviors are so clearly suspicious, that you can't help but see through their motivations. For example, it is implied that Gale made no effort to defend himself of his crime during a trial that we neither saw nor have reference to, and he seems to care little about the execution that awaits him days away. So, why does he wait till the last minute before finally deciding to claim his innocence and have his story told? We see this as suspicious, but it doesn't seem to pique the curiosity of anyone else in the film.

Probably the stronger point is that Gayle was an outspoken activist for the anti-capital punishment cause; it's curious that he refused to talk to the press until now. This is so out of character for Gale, that someone should have noticed. If that's not enough, everyone associated with Gale, including his lawyer and the entire `death watch' organization, seem to be curiously silent on his imminent execution - a behavior that's uncharacteristic of a group that deems the death penalty as an act that should never, ever be implemented on anyone, regardless of their guilt or innocence. One of the many holes in the layout of the characters is the lack of a serious `adversary' that would be out to frame Gale.

Anyone connecting the dots - or just paying attention - can figure out what's going on, but my mentioning more at this point would give away the movie. Suffice to say, the end is hardly a surprise, if not downright predictable.

Ok, ok.. so the thriller part is weak. Then, what about the philosophical arguments for and against the death penalty, which is clearly an agenda of the film? Unfortunately, this is where the film is even weaker - it presents arguments so naively and sophomorically, regurgitating statistics and simple-minded populist rhetoric we've been hearing for years, that it isn't going to present perspectives that people haven't already considered. What's more, the film's presentation of its arguments are incomplete - it doesn't even mention DNA testing or how there has already been a big shift in public opinion on the subject in the past couple of years. Even on a philosophical level, it doesn't really address the true complexity of the issue. By preaching to the converted, you wonder, who is the audience for this film?

As a counter-example for a film about the death penalty, Tim Robbins' `Dead Man Walking,' artfully walks right down the center of the road, presenting coherent arguments both for and against the death penalty with insight and sensitivity. The film's effectiveness is accomplished by showing the equally devastating effects thrust upon people through intimate views of their lives in very realistic situations. It didn't need to preach. `David Gayle' doesn't let the audience draw their own conclusions like `Dead Man Walking' did - instead, it spoon feeds exactly what Parker wants you to think, simplistic, though it may be. The difference of the approaches of these two films is so pronounced, that, of all directors, Parker should have known better.

Oddly enough, he has done better. In `Citizen Ruth', Parker articulated both sides of the abortion argument with equality and poignant observations, and even did so with biting satire. He not only showed how people progress their agenda, but how they often do so at expense of the people they aim to help. For those in emotionally churning political battles, sometimes winning isn't even enough; the other side has to lose and lose badly. Nowhere in `David Gale' do we see such authentic depiction of those involved in the heat of emotionally-charged infighting, even though it's the same director.

If any of that weren't enough, what finally brought the film down is the apathetic relationships between the characters, the most important of which being between Bloom, the reporter, and Gale. Since Bloom was to be the messenger of Gale's agenda, you'd think Parker would have had the two engage more intimately on some level to give her motivation to help him. What's more, we as audience members symbolically put ourselves in her role - if Gale can convince her of his cause, we are convinced too. Alas, this relationship never takes hold. It even appeared that her motivation to solve the `mystery' was born more out of the fact that she could solve it, than out of her sympathy for Gale or his cause. Compare this with the superb depiction of the relationship Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in `Silence of the Lambs.'

While it's probably the case that `The Life of David Gale' will appeal to mass audiences who will overlook the simplistic political statements, and be attracted to the `suspense/thriller' genre, I would prefer to put it to sleep quickly. But quietly and humanely, of course.


Tries too hard to be an artsy film
Emanuele Crialese's `Respiro' reminds me of Woody Allen's film, `Hollywood Ending', where a movie director makes a movie so bad, only the French would love it. While Allen's film is fictional, the French still gave "Respiro" the Critic's Week Prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. I bet Woody had a chuckle over this one.

The basis for the movie, `Respiro', comes from a legend told on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where a young mother who behaved outside the rules of the small community, was thought to be insane, and thus ostracized by the townspeople. One day, she disappeared, leaving only her clothes on the beach. The community was left feeling guilty for having driven the woman to suicide, but the force of prayers brought her back to life from the sea, where she returned to normal life with her family.

The main problems with `Respiro' the film, are two-fold: first, the mother, played by Valeria Golino (whose film debut was along side Tom Cruise in `Rain Man'), seemed incongruent to the intent of the legend, which intended to portray the woman as simply out of line with social norms. In the film, however, she is actually psychiatrically ill. This critical point changes our perception of the townspeople's attempt to help her – rather than they're seeming conformist and unjust in their attempts to help her, they actually seemed genuine and authentic. This very fact discredits almost the entire point of the film. The only left to keep it together are the character portrayals themselves. But here, the director fails again, but much like the way Allen satirized in his film, `Hollywood Ending': it's a case of the Emperor's New Clothes: none of the main characters have any depth or meaning (aside from one of the mother's young sons), but the director tells you they do, so those who awarded this film the Critic's Week Prize, seemed to see something that just wasn't there.

Other problems with the film make it even less interesting, and by consequence, even more pretentious: The director intended to keep dialog extremely brief, but failed to replace their communication with anything else to portray character, mood, or even a sense of purpose. It seemed to be a series of scenes that were intended to be interpreted as `artful' in their abstraction and symbolism, but the director just assumed the audience would accept it because he told us to.

The closest thing to compare this movie with would be `Il Postino', the Italian film about the romantic postman who writes love poems to a woman to win her love. That film had all of the features that `Respiro' attempted, but Postino had warm and interesting characters, a meaningful and motivated plotline, and didn't mind portraying a cute Italian island for the beautifully romantic place that it is.

In the end, `Respiro' didn't move me at all, but if it's going to win film awards at Cannes, I'll give the credit more to Woody Allen, who seems to have an insight into those who think they know what a good artsy film is all about.

Dark Blue

Dark Blue is pretty dim
The previews for the movie `Dark Blue' look fantastic. Even after I saw the film, I still see trailers for it in theaters and on TV, and think, `wow, that looks like a great film!' It's such an artful talent to construct such compelling material from such a bland and awful movie, that I feel compelled to give the production company a big `thumbs-up' for doing a job well-done. Why can't the people who make these movies try to retain the exciting and interesting promises seen in the trailer? In summary, the movie just tried to do too much, while being witty and `big-screen' at the same time. Set in the Los Angeles Police Department, days before the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, veteran detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) tutors his rookie partner in the grim realities of police intimidation and corruption in order to `keep the peace' in a city gone wild. Meanwhile, Assistant Chief Holland (Ving Rhames of `Pulp Fiction' fame), wants to cleanse the system and rid the department of corruption. The problems with the movie are so numerous, ranging from a poor script to just plain bad ideas in directing, that the only thing worth discussing is… why Kurt Russell doesn't have a better agent. It's not that he's a `bad' actor – in fact, I liked him in just about every comedy he's ever done, dating all the way back to Disney's 1969 hit, `The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes.' But, for all of his great on-screen charisma, boyish charm and chemistry with other actors on screen – even in really terrible movies like `Dark Blue' – he never seems to get into a film with a worthy script or a strong director. You can see potential talent bursting out of him, but alas, I keep waiting. Ok, back to the movie review. `Dark Blue' could have been interesting in several ways, but each time, they dropped the ball. It started with many people having `something to hide', while discovering incriminating dirt on other people. Given the inevitable hammer dropping when the riots started, the intertwining of corrupt officials would have made for interesting plot twists. But, all that was just dropped. Then, there's the subplot of Perry's transgression from bad cop to good cop through moral enlightenment, but that was so sloppily done that it didn't seem credible. And then there were nonsensical relationships. Perry was married to… oh, do I have to go on with this?

Johnny English

Fun and Funny, but just misses its target
James Bond he isn't, but he's also not Inspector Clouseau. Instead, Rowan Atkinson is `Johnny English', Secret Agent `1', a sort-of hybrid of the suave Roger Moore, and the bumbling Peter Sellars. While the film has some fine moments of comedy, it doesn't quite hit its target on overall creativity or ingenuity. This really isn't Atkinson's fault, but more that of the filmmakers, none of whom have ever made a comedy before.

As is the case with `secret agent' movies, the overall framework of `Johnny English' follows the traditional spy-thriller formula. Here, English is a lower-grade agent with her majesty's secret service, but when a bomb kills literally all other agents, he is the only one left to be assigned the responsibility of guarding the crown jewels of England. After they are stolen, his job then is to recover them. The villain is Pascal Sauvage, played by John Malkovich, a very distant descendent of French royalty, who owns the largest and most successful prison construction and management company in the world. His plan is to dethrone the Queen of England, take her place as the new king, and exercise the little-known rite of reclaiming all the land in the UK in his own name. What does he plan to do with the island-nation? Turn it into a huge prison that would house all the criminals of the world.

Uh. Right. Well, anyway, the film's framework mirrors the 007 spy-thriller, including the plot, the gadgets and the female counterparts; this isn't surprising, since the screenwriters are Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, co-writers for the last two Bond films, `Die Another Day' and `The World is not Enough.' The star of the film being Rowan Atkinson, you'd think that there would be more `Mr. Bean' style comedy, since this was his signature caricature for which most people know him. To his credit, Atkinson portrays a more intelligent agent than the simple-minded Mr. Bean, and his natural comedic abilities extend beyond what we've seen from him before. In one scene involving his mixing up two drugs, a truth serum and a muscle relaxant, I was in tears laughing for a good five minutes, even though the entire skit was predictable and not very creative.

While Atkinson's work was well done, `Johnny English' doesn't really overcome its downsides: the comedy feels inconsistent, the plot line is sloppy, and the supporting characters don't compliment Atkinson's style of humor. Unlike Peter Sellar's `little yellow friend', Kato, in the Pink Panther series, Atkinson's `straight man', Bough, is more of prop than a catalyst to the antics. These and other problems are more due to the fact that the director, Peter Howitt II, and the aforementioned screenwriters, have never made a comedy before. They are just too inexperienced to best exploit Atkinson's talents or the finer details of comedic cinema.

It's hard to recommend `Johnny English' overall, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it for the bits and pieces that were fun. I do hope he tries again, though. He definite has more promise than I'd expected.

The Hunted

"The Hunted"'s Friedkin needs an exorcism
The way William Friedkin's latest film, `The Hunted', appears, you'd think it was the next sequels of the `Fugitive' movie series. It's the same type of formula, where a fugitive is running from Tommy Lee Jones, who directs a team of FBI agents in hunting him down. However, other than a copious amount of blood in many fight scenes, the film essentially adds up to nothing.

The premise of the film started off very well, as did the setup and the initial portrayal of characters. Tommy Lee Jones stars as L.T. Bonham, an FBI agent who used to train special-ops soldiers in hand-to-hand combat and field survival skills. One of his best students is Aaron Hallam, played by Benicio Del Toro, who served in the Serbian/Kosovo conflict in the 1990s. He's gone over the psychological edge due to the horrors he's witnessed as a soldier, and with his new-found awareness that man is an unjustifiable killer, he decides to take it upon himself to play judge, jury and executioner… by killing a couple of men hunting deer. Bonham is called in to track and hunt down Hallam, but instead of this being a long drawn out series of clues that build up over the course of the film that leads to a final and dramatic capture, the same sequence of chase-catch-escape events repeats over and over and over. After a while, you begin to wonder, `where's this going?' Nothing changes in each iteration, other than each conflict involves more blood.

From a basic filmmaking perspective, `The Hunted' is fraught with sloppiness. Bonham's one and only form of tracking something is looking for footprints. I counted nine times that he glances around and notices very obvious and identifiable footprints in the snow, mud, grass, or wet shoes on concrete. Cleverness aside, my tolerance wanes too far when I begin to look at my watch, wondering how long each of these constantly repeated segments will go on. Even the gory blood and guts got a little repetitive. I've learned to overlook the fact that someone's thigh has been stabbed, yet they still walk and use their legs as if nothing was wrong, but when streams of blood start to come out (to the thrill and enjoyment of the audience), and the combatants are never affected in any perceivable way, I begin to sense something's wrong. ;-)

While I have no objection to copious violence or explicit gore, `The Hunted' fails to go anywhere as a story. No characters really have motivation or explanation for why they do what they do, no relationships are developed, and only the one between Bonham and Hallam is even given a background history. Yet, even then, nothing developed in any way, despite obvious and desperate opportunities to lead them along throughout the film.

There's not a whole lot of positive stuff to say about `The Hunted', but I can report that it is one of the few seriously testosterone-laden movies that's been released lately. Oddly enough, this is probably more of a chick-flick than one might think, especially judging from the audience and the pitch of the screams (and ooh's, and ahh's). Obviously, it's not a film for every gal, but if you want to see hunks battling it out a lot, this is the one for you.

One Hour Photo

great film for its qualities, despite my desire for more character development
One Hour Photo is a thriller where Robin Williams plays a psycho with a conscience. It's a nicely paced, intelligent suspense film, where its qualities lie on aesthetic qualities, such as pace, soundtrack, and other dramatic elements. This is not a movie that relies on surprise, shock, or intrigue.

The plot revolves around Robin Williams' character, Sy Parrish, a lonely and introverted photo lab technician at a SavMart convenience store. He lives his life vicariously through the photos of the regulars who drop off their film to be processed. One of his quips in a long series of narratives interjected throughout the movie, reminds us that, `people take pictures of happy times in their lives. No one ever takes a picture of something they want to forget.' The happier he perceives other people, the more he withdraws from his own life and seeks to be a part of theirs. But it's a special family, the Yorkins - a mother, father and son -- that he most strongly bonds to over the past nine years. He fantasizes that he is their `Uncle Sy', and in his mind, they treat him as such. As his emotional stability becomes increasingly unbalanced, he finally snaps when he discovers a secret that could tear apart the family.

What carries the film is the character profiles and excellent visual qualities. The characters reflect their environment: cold, stark, and generically plain. Physical spaces are large, vast areas of empty isles, huge rooms, fluourescently lit sterile environments - just like the people. In a sense, nothingness. Yet, there is a lot underneath. And this is where the film's lesser quality comes in.

The characters lack is a sense of depth. Psychotics are more interesting when we know their history - we don't know anything about Sy's past, and the notion that he has none takes away more than it adds. There are other conflicts that go untested, which also leaves a sense of incompleteness. (We don't need `resolution', just a sense that an issue is addressed.) For all the empty vastness of the movie that symbolizes Sy's profile, it's a perfect time to add a tiny drop of black paint on a vast white canvas: show something that gives us history. Many of Sy's pivotal plot-turning acts are done more for symbolic effect rather than to guide the plot along, and are therefore left with question-marks over the audience's collective head. Why would he do certain things? He's supposed to be cold and calculating, but some of his actions are anything but.

One Hour Photo is almost more of an artsy film than a mainstream one, and in that genre, these concerns really needn't be addressed to satisfy its target audience. In the end, I loved the film, and all its qualities, despite my desire for more character development.

This is Robin Williams' third film of 2002, all of which feature him as a psychotic. But it's this role that is probably the most dramatic and believable. What makes it even better is that you almost forget it's him soon after the movie begins. For an actor as easily type-cast as Williams, this marks a notable step forward in the breadth of his work.

The movie was written and directed by Mark Romanek, most known for music videos; most prominently, Madonna's 1999 video collection. This is his first film, unless you want to count his indie-effort, Static, in 1985, which didn't get very much attention. In One Hour Photo, Romanek uses techniques very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrik - with the ultra-wide-angle symmetry shots, long, quiet scenes, and dramatic pauses between lines to achieve a sense of suspense and psychological drama.


light comedy at its own expense
There are two basic ways to use comedy in films: either play up the gag, or use it as a backdrop to punctuate a more serious underlying story. Movies like The Naked Gun, Austin Powers and the Pink Panther are classics in the `gag' genre because they never attempt to approach any serious human issue, even though the vulnerabilities of the main characters are sympathetic, and we love the heroes despite themselves. On the other hand, if you're going to introduce even the faintest shadow of seriousness, then you cross that grey line where some modicum of intellect is required to keep the audience within the circle of believable possibilities. Failing that, even the gag itself can't overcome it.

The problem with `Simone', the latest film from writer, producer and director Andrew Niccol is that the movie doesn't know which it wants to be, bringing down the whole movie a couple of notches.

Al Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a down and out Academy Award-nominated director who just lost his last shot at a comeback – and his job – due to one too many `creative differences' with ego-centric actors. When a computer genius dies and bequeaths to Viktor a computer program that perfectly simulates a human, Viktor uses it to create his own actress, named Simone. She instantly becomes a hit, and Viktor is back in the movie business again, but not because of his filmmaking, because of his new cyber star that everyone else in the world thinks is a real person. At last, he has a taste of the success he always craved and the world's most beloved star under his thumb, but he keeps the secret of her real identity to himself for fear of losing the limelight. By the time he realizes that his life is getting worse, he tries in vain to dispense of the synthetic actress, but to no avail. Her celebrity status is too strong for the public to think anything badly of her. Even his attempts to `kill' her are unsuccessful.

Is it a satire on the superficiality of Hollywood and the great lie perpetuated by celebrity culture? Or, does it just use that as a backdrop to support its more serious side of Viktor's psychological deterioration? The movie seems to swagger between the two, but ultimately abandons the drama for the gag. Oops.

That's not to say this is a bad film – the satirical cuts at Hollywood and celebrity culture are cute, and the movie is lots of fun to watch for the great one-liners. But, make no mistake; this is not to be compared with the all-time winner for this category: Robert Altman's `The Player,' or even Barry Sonnenfeld's `Get Shorty.' The cuts at Hollywood are fun because, well, we like that. It's a safe, sure fire hit with audiences. But the humor isn't that biting and certainly not original. Poignant, yes, but we've seen it before.

The bigger problem with `Simone' is that the movie also wants to have the human drama: the broken relationship, getting back with the ex-wife, the too-bright-for-her-own-good daughter, and many other clichés. Again, nothing wrong with that! But the movie doesn't do anything with these people. They're two-dimensional, and Viktor's need for them is not supported by the script or acting. He begins to drink more heavily, but the thread of his being an alcoholic is completely dropped. There is no confrontation at all about his issues, either alone with his own thoughts, or between him and someone else. If you're going to make such plot points appear important, do something with them! Don't just present them and leave them hanging. It neither adds to the gag, nor contributes to the story line.

In short, too many important aspects of basic story-telling are hand-waved away, putting the film more in the category of exceptionally light comedy at its own expense. Fun, yes, but it could have been better. Niccol, who also did Gattaca and The Truman Show, has shown us that he can address very human and realistic issues without appearing too serious or heavy-handed, nor has he diluted his comedic form. So, in a sense, `Simone' is a step down for the filmmaker, because he relied too heavily on the gag of the cyber actress, which, alone, doesn't carry the film. I hope this doesn't mean that Niccol himself may also be getting lost in that Hollywood spectre and become his own Viktor Taransky.

Sweet Home Alabama

formula film, but done so well, you don't mind
`Sweet Home Alabama' is a fine example of the perfect `formula' movie for the comedy-romance genre. The keyword here is `formula' – this film makes no attempt at hiding its Cinderella storyline and predictable outcome, but what makes it so wonderful is how it avoids all the mistakes that most comedy-romance movies make. No gags. No oversimplifications. No diminutive treatment of subcultures to garner a laugh. Instead, it focuses on precisely what makes great movies great: strong character profile and development, intelligent script, believable motivations, strong supporting roles, and a very honest and real portrayal of people behaving in believable ways. Above all, the movie acknowledges serious moments by way of serious acting. Whatever is funny is so because people are acting in ways that appear real and authentic, not because the writers had a good one-liner that managed to wriggle into the script.

The story revolves around Melanie Carmichael (played by Reese Witherspoon), a successful high-end clothing designer in New York, who wants to marry the man of her dreams. But, she can't because she's still married to a man from her hometown in Alabama. The story begins with her having to go back and take care of her past before she can move on. In the process, she learns more about herself, her family and friends, and finally appreciates her roots in life and comes to terms with the mistakes she's made. It's a movie about self-discovery, but in this film, all the characters reveal depths about themselves that truly flesh out the story to unexpected dimensions. Even Candice Bergen's role as the mayor of New York, while clearly exaggerated and over-the-top as a political weasel, is a truly likable character (even though she looks and acts remarkably similar to how we might envision Martha Stewart behaving in private). For each character in each scene, we understand motivations, we believe why people choose their actions, and we follow along willingly and eagerly as events unfold to reveal more and more depths to people and the skeletons they've kept in their closets.

I was completely taken off guard by how smart this film was, from the script to the performances of even the most minor characters. This film illustrates so well that it only takes a simple moment, a gesture, or even a short line of dialog to breathe real life into a character giving a film true depth: the eyebrow expression in response to a surprise, a look of pleasure when something works in their favor, and even the use of dialect and slang all contribute smoothly to the authenticity of the film. Directors have no more excuses for cutting corners on such aspects of their films, something I've been complaining about for all of the past romantic comedies of the past year. What's more the director, Andy Tennant, whose resume is mostly comprised of TV movies and less-than-stellar theatrical releases, illustrates that it doesn't require veteran filmmakers to see and appreciate this subtle, yet ultimately important mindset.

Make no mistake, this is not going to be a classic. It's clearly a formula film, but done so well that you feel quite satisfied at the end. I hate to say it, but I shouldn't have to praise this movie so much. Yet, with the constant deterioration of romantic comedies these days, it stands head and shoulders above the rest. "Sweet Home Alabama" should be a reminder for how formula romantic comedies should be made.

Star Trek: Nemesis

for what it is, it's juuuuuust fine...
`Star Trek: Nemesis' is the 10th movie in the series that started as a failed sci-fi sitcom in 1966, but has since grown to capture the hearts and minds of three generations. One of the main reasons for its longevity is its continuing reinforcement of the `humanity' theme. More precisely, what it means to be human, even in a world full of non-human entities, whether of alien origin, or of synthetic design.

While this universal theme has reached many audiences around the world successfully, one has to be a faithful follower of the specific characters within `The Next Generation' series to understand or be entertained by this new movie. Make no mistake, `Nemesis' is definitely good movie material to be sure. It's just that it is so dependent on the knowledge of the existing characters and ongoing plot lines, that without that background, you may feel, well… `lost in space.' Here, let me demonstrate by explaining the plot line:

On their way to Riker's and Troi's honeymoon, the Enterprise is sent near the neutral zone to Romulan space, and picks up a prototypic twin of android Data. Immediately they are further sent to Romulus, where a new praetor, Shinzon, a half-Reman cloned from Captain Picard, appears to want peace with the Federation.

See what I mean? To any Star Trek fan, this is juicy stuff! To anyone else, it might seem a little `out there.' Fortunately for me, I love the Trek series. If you do too, I can gladly report that this `episode' was far more intelligent, well-scripted and acted, and exciting in all ways than previous Trek movies in recent past. In fact, no other since Star Trek II has been as true to the `spirit' of the series as this has. True, Star Trek IV was a box-office smash, and appealed to even non-trekkies with its universal `save the whales' theme, but it had to part a little from the die-hard Trekkie stuff to accommodate the wider audience.

The drawbacks of `Nemesis' are that certain posited ideas aren't given closure. For example, the morality of cloning is introduced. Accordingly, this topical idea in today's current events is brought in as a main theme of the film, as is standard practice for Trek stories. Here, both Data, the android, and Capt. Picard are both `cloned', establishing an excellent platform for the theme of self-discovery, and `what it means to be human.' Yet, while the initial conjecture of the dilemma is superb, the questions it poses are not left with compelling and enduring thoughts that force us to contemplate further. Also, subplots and new twists are introduced that are clearly for the benefit of follow-on TV viewers. While that's nice for promoting the series as a trademark, we movie-goers shouldn't have to be subject to that. Movies should self-contained and not require intertwining with TV for a sense of resolove.

Nevertheless, I came away from `Star Trek: Nemesis' as a very happy viewer. I enjoyed the experience for what it was, and don't think it's important enough to get too dramatic about its shortcomings. As William Shatner once said to a group of surprised fans at a Trek convention years ago, `It's just a TV show! Get a life!'

Buffalo Soldiers

over-hyped for it's anti-american military commentary, which it isn't...
Some films just suffer from bad luck, and `Buffalo Soldiers' is one of them. Not that the movie is all that bad, nor all that terrific; it just deals with a subject that Americans might not be comfortable about today: a less-than-glowing depiction of the American military.

The film made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, three days before Sept 11, 2001, under great fanfare. It was billed as being a dark satirical look at the military, but after the attacks on 9/11, its future was buried. Now, almost two years later, `Buffalo Soldiers' is finally being released, but it's not clear that the climate will be any more accommodating.

The movie starts by presenting a criminal subculture operating among U.S. soldiers stationed in West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin wall. The satirical billing is merely a backdrop for the film, and it does present just about everyone rather hyperbolically. Joaquin Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a la Radar O'Reilly from MASH. He is the company clerk for a U.S. supply base, making most decisions for his oblivious colonel to rubber stamp. Like Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22, he goes about his normal routine of making money and duping the system, but in this case, Elwood is a small-time drug dealer who sometimes dabbles in black market booty. Things turn on him quickly when he happens across some heavy weaponry, and his plan for unloading the equipment puts him way over his head, getting him into far more trouble than what he can handle as the lightweight and inexperienced paper-pusher that he is. By the time the plot line is established, the backdrop of satire is abandoned, witty observations undone, and philosophical quips erased.

Indeed, the true essence of the film lies beyond the plot, but it doesn't go as far as it tagline philosophy: `Where there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself.', a quote from Nietzsche, whose keen observation was the original inspiration for the film. At most, `Buffalo Soldiers' depicts how people behave when they get in over their heads, and only a dash of commentary on anything military or philosophical.

As for the controversy around American soldiers doing bad things, it would be a stretch to feel this is commentary on the good ol' US of A. Only those looking to pick a fight would find any form of offense or unpatriotic flavor to this film. Still, all one has to do is suggest the notion, and people will simply adopt that view anyway, regardless of what's on screen. Ironically, that's the movie's fault, not the public's. If the movie were better at delivering a more profound message - one that it clearly wanted to make - or if the story line were multi-dimensional, rather than a straightforward crime caper, people would easily overlook its superficial qualities. To be sure, Joaquin Phoenix does an excellent job at portraying a frat boy who doesn't take the army seriously, and who learns the ropes the hard way, just before he gets busted down to hell.

In the end, `Buffalo Solders' is entertaining, has a splash of romance, and is certainly a good enough movie in its own right, but is not the cynical, anti-war, anti-patriotic movie that people will be told it is. Oddly, the film's perception may be disproportionately diminished and reviewed poorly because of the attention it's getting, but it doesn't deserve undue praise either.


don't even bother renting it.
In a fascist future where all forms of feeling are illegal, a man charged with enforcing the law rises to overthrow the system. That's the basic premise of `Equilibrium', the latest formula flick from Kurt Wimmer, whose past writing and directing credits are sparse and unimpressive (except for 1999's `Thomas Crown Affair'). Unfortunately, this film adds another clone to the already deep stack of similarly-themed films, even the most mediocre of which is better.

The backdrop is a future world where the any sort of emotion – love, hate, passion, creativity, anything – is ultimately thought to be the foundation for war. And to avoid war at all costs, the new global government has outlawed all forms of expression. Only zombie-like inexpressive people inhabit the Earth, who are controlled by a daily dose of `Prozium.' (Self-administered, no less.) Enter Christian Bale's character, John Preston, `thought cop'. He arrests people for `sense crimes', where people express emotions against the law. The crime is punishable by death. One day, when Preston accidentally breaks his morning dose of Prozium, his mind begins to sense feelings again, which leads to his realization that something's wrong with this system after all.

When making films based on Orwell's classic theme of a police state run by an anonymous and fatherly figure like Big Brother, a director is forced to satisfy at least one of three audiences: the intellect-philosopher, the adolescent/young adult, or the artistic aficionado. In the first case, movies such as `1984', involve the philosophical exploration of how and why police states are formed, and what life might be like within it. These often lead to perspectives that somehow relate to today's society. That doesn't happen here. On the other hand, adolescent films deal use the theme more as a backdrop to justify scenes involving hand-to-hand combat or impressive high-tech combat scenes, like `The Matrix'. Finally, the artful genre, such as `Brazil', depicts the future less directly, in more symbolic ways, by its cinematography, set design, computer graphics. Each of the example films noted here reach their intended audience because they exploit the requisite characteristics of that demographic.

The problem with `Equilibrium' is that it isn't quite sure which audience it wants to please. This is a kind way of saying that it tries all of them, but does none of them well. The movie tries to pose philosophical questions, but too sophomorically to be taken seriously. It presents some testosterone-laden shoot-em-up scenes that aren't too bad for the younger male audiences, but they are too few and far between to keep them interested during the slower parts. And while a ton of money clearly went into the set design and cinematography, there's nothing unique or interesting, let alone stuff we haven't seen before to please the artistic community.

In short, the movie just plain sagged. I wouldn't even bother renting it.

Johnny English

Fun and Funny, but just misses its target
James Bond he isn't, but he's also not Inspector Clouseau. Instead, Rowan Atkinson is `Johnny English', Secret Agent `1', a sort-of hybrid of the suave Roger Moore, and the bumbling Peter Sellars. While the film has some fine moments of comedy, it doesn't quite hit its target on overall creativity or ingenuity. This really isn't Atkinson's fault, but more that of the filmmakers, none of whom have ever made a comedy before.

As is the case with `secret agent' movies, the overall framework of `Johnny English' follows the traditional spy-thriller formula. Here, English is a lower-grade agent with her majesty's secret service, but when a bomb kills literally all other agents, he is the only one left to be assigned the responsibility of guarding the crown jewels of England. After they are stolen, his job then is to recover them. The villain is Pascal Sauvage, played by John Malkovich, a very distant descendent of French royalty, who owns the largest and most successful prison construction and management company in the world. His plan is to dethrone the Queen of England, take her place as the new king, and exercise the little-known rite of reclaiming all the land in the UK in his own name. What does he plan to do with the island-nation? Turn it into a huge prison that would house all the criminals of the world.

Uh. Right. Well, anyway, the film's framework mirrors the 007 spy-thriller, including the plot, the gadgets and the female counterparts; this isn't surprising, since the screenwriters are Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, co-writers for the last two Bond films, `Die Another Day' and `The World is not Enough.' The star of the film being Rowan Atkinson, you'd think that there would be more `Mr. Bean' style comedy, since this was his signature caricature for which most people know him. To his credit, Atkinson portrays a more intelligent agent than the simple-minded Mr. Bean, and his natural comedic abilities extend beyond what we've seen from him before. In one scene involving his mixing up two drugs, a truth serum and a muscle relaxant, I was in tears laughing for a good five minutes, even though the entire skit was predictable and not very creative.

While Atkinson's work was well done, `Johnny English' doesn't really overcome its downsides: the comedy feels inconsistent, the plot line is sloppy, and the supporting characters don't compliment Atkinson's style of humor. Unlike Peter Sellar's `little yellow friend', Kato, in the Pink Panther series, Atkinson's `straight man', Bough, is more of prop than a catalyst to the antics. These and other problems are more due to the fact that the director, Peter Howitt II, and the aforementioned screenwriters, have never made a comedy before. They are just too inexperienced to best exploit Atkinson's talents or the finer details of comedic cinema.

It's hard to recommend `Johnny English' overall, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it for the bits and pieces that were fun. I do hope he tries again, though. He definite has more promise than I'd expected.


Well done, but preaches to the converted
It has been said that satire should be like a very sharp razor blade: you don't know you've been cut until you see the blood. The same thing can be said of movies with a social agenda: it's better if you don't see it coming, which makes it all the more effective when it's over. If only filmmakers that preach their social or political views had a better sense of knowing when to stop `preaching', and let the audience draw their own conclusions, we'd have more movies with positive social messages.

Case in point is the film, `Chaos', by Coline Serreau, who presents a fairy tail story that celebrates, glorifies and idolizes the strength and perseverance of women in a male-dominated society. The main plot revolves around two women: Helene, an upper-middle class French woman, and Malika, a young prostitute. The two meet when Helene and her husband accidentally encounter Malika being violently attacked by a group of men. The couple witness this from inside their car, but the husband doesn't want to help or have anything to do with the girl, who's been left for dead. Helene, overwhelmed with guilt, decides to visits Malika in the hospital, against her husband's strict instructions. As Malika slowly regains consciousness, and her physical strength returns, the women grow closer, and the story behind the mysterious heroine unfolds. And, like a blooming flower, so does the magnitude of the story line, which becomes far too complicated to summarize here. (It's also far more involved than it needed to be for the plot or social commentary.)

Suffice to say, the story is all about Malika's and all the female characters' struggles to find individuality and freedom from under the thumb of the men in their lives. But the film doesn't stop there - it also makes observations (and hence, commentary) about French society, Muslim cultures, and a variety of other aspects of modern life. Attempting to serve all these objectives, the film tends to meander from one character to another, and one political statement to another, so it can squeeze it all in. This ends up overcomplicating things to a minor degree, but in the end, the movie is really all about women and their plight, and the movie makes no excuses or apologies about that.

For Helene, it's as simple as her leaving her good-for-nothing, ego-centric husband. For Malika, though, her first barrier is her patriarchic Muslim family, who stymied her attempts to educate herself or make a better life. Then it's her father, who tried to sell her to a man in Algeria for marriage. When she ran away just before her scheduled departure, she found herself under the influence of a pimp, who forced her into prostitution, drugged and raped her, and beat her relentlessly, over and over. Things get worse and worse for all the women in the film, major and minor characters alike, until things come to a head, when (surprise) all women come together and win, and all the men lose in a big, big way.

The film's use of satire is exaggeration and extremes, but you don't necessarily see that in one character alone, but all the characters as a collective. All the men are evil, and all the women are glorified. This use of two-dimensional character portrayal gives away the otherwise obvious moral agenda of the film; it also draws attention to the unsophisticated satirical vehicles normally employed by much less experienced filmmakers. It's almost as though Serreau gets so lost in her own agenda that she forgets the true nature of cutting satire. When events develop so transparently and obviously, you can't help but know that this film is only trying to preach to the converted.

Effective satire is about making acute and keen observations of real people, subtly leading us to the filmmaker's desired conclusions, all the while letting us think we got there on our own. We need to see at least one of the heroines lose because the sad reality is that not all women leave the men that subjugate them--we need to be reminded of that not just for the dose of reality for credibility's sake, but it accentuates the emotional impact of the victories of the women that do overcome their barriers. Similarly, one of the bad guys should be portrayed as changing his ways so as to draw more attention to those who don't. Serreau's problem is that she can't accept a character losing. This, in itself, compromises credibility. As Shakespeare once said, `thou doest protest too loudly.'

There's no question that `Chaos' will win the hearts and minds of women who feel victimized, or who seek the camaraderie of seeing strong women win on screen. But it's almost sad to see them rally around what is essentially a vacuous film that doesn't carry the more cogent message it could have been so much more effective at giving. I guess it's my way of saying, `preaching to the converted isn't hard. Leave that to the amateurs.'

Phone Booth

shallow, two-dimensional characters don't complete the call
It's hard to really pinpoint exactly what it is about Joel Schumacher's, `Phone Booth' that makes it one of the worst movies I've ever seen. But first, let me describe it.

The entire movie takes place in and near a phone booth in New York City, where Ferrell plays Stuart Shepard, a small-time two-bit publicity agent who finds himself pinned inside a phone box by an extortionist's sniper rifle. Apparently, the sniper's done research on Shepard and knows that he's had `bad intentions'. He's threatening to kill Shepard and anyone else around him if Shepard doesn't do exactly what the sniper wants, including hanging up the phone. What does he want him to do? Confess his sins.

In short, `Phone Booth' feels like a really poor attempt at a movie like `Speed', where the bad guy plays the good guy like a puppet for his own musings. Not that I liked that movie either, but at least it had tension. `Phone Booth', however, is an example of just about everything that can be wrong with a movie. The script was dreadful from the outset, with logistical errors and manipulated dialog that begs for a tomato to be thrown at the screen. Obvious things take place that go entirely unnoticed by the characters for the sole reason of building `suspense', but it only leaves you on the verge of screaming at the screen in anger and frustration.

That aside, the main drawback of the film is a common one: failing to give any depth to any of the characters. Shepard is a two-bit, sleazy sort who'll never really amount to much, that he becomes an uninteresting victim for the antagonist to choose in the first place. In fact, he's so shallow, that he never actually did anything wrong in the first place. He's contemplated having an affair, but it seems more like a fantasy he never really intended to follow through on. At this point, even if Shepard confesses, we think, `so what?' He's simply not important enough to care about his confessions.

Similarly, the sniper himself is questionable. We are presented with a shadowy figure acting as the omniscient judge and jury by forcing them to see their actions at the end of a gun barrel. If the sinner doesn't repent, he's killed. But anyone that has any knowledge of human nature knows that people who are under duress – i.e., have a gun pointed at them – will (and do) say anything that the killer wants them to say to save himself. So, what value is there to watching someone confess sins under these conditions? If Shepard confesses, we don't care, and if he doesn't confess, he's just an idiot.

I rarely make this statement, so I don't take it lightly when I say that `Phone Booth' is one of the worst movies I've seen in recent memory. So, if you do see it, at least make it a collect call by having someone else pay your way.

Femme Fatale

"Style over Substance" works here
`Femme Fatale' is Brian De Palma's latest foray into the challenging, but artful world of contemporary film noir. The genre is not new to De Palma's repertoire, but this one was a particularly difficult undertaking, due to its complex mix of cinematography, genre interplays, character profiles, and plot development. I have extremely mixed feelings about the film because where it succeeds, it does so extraordinarily well, but where it fails is too important to the overall quality of the film. I felt more saddened that De Palma, who wrote and directed it, didn't just choose less loftier goals and come out with a much stronger piece.

The plot revolves around an alluring seductress, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who leads a life of crime, but leaves it abruptly and unintentionally when circumstances give her a new lease on life as a respectable married woman. All's well, till her identity is revealed when a two-bit paparazzi, played by Antonio Banderas, brings her past and present together again, making for an explosive interplay of human character and dramatic plot twists.

I confess that the above plotline is grossly oversimplified, but I stop short of apologizing for it, because the plot itself is the least important aspect of `Femme Fatale.' Logistics are loose at best, but as the final scenes play out, the plot seems relatively unimportant compared to the much stronger elements of the film. The movie blends styles ranging from French independent films' European use of female personas and erotic sensuality, to American cult genres, such as Pulp Fiction or Twin Peaks, with its use of musical counterpoint. There are intensely mature scenes involving more explicit sexual innuendo, as well as sophisticated cinematic photography that plays with color, shadow and texture. Much of the production involved such intimate attention to this stylistic detail, it carries the film. Most well-versed film-goers are sure to appreciate and relish in the varied themes presented here.

The characters in the film are compelling, although two-dimensional, through and through. At first, I considered this a weak point, but when the filmmaker's intentions of style and mood became more clear, I reluctantly acknowledged that stronger characters would have drawn the focus away from the film's more abstract aesthetic qualities. Noire films are often more about style than plot, and the characters are often frustratingly under-explained, not that I necessarily support this aspect of this otherwise fine genre. It's the `contemporary' part that adds the additional dimension of abstraction that demands less from the characters than what we think we want to see. This odd paradox is exactly why I felt the plot was too strong, despite its logistical problems. Had the sequence of events been even less important, I would have found it much easier to bathe in the visual, audible and other aesthetic qualities of the movie.

To that end, `Femme Fatale' is clearly form over substance, which may not appeal to the more casual viewer looking for something reminiscent of previous De Palma mainstream blockbusters, such as `Mission: Impossible.' This film cannot be critiqued with a simple view, and I wish I had hours more to discuss its more intricate nuances, but even still, to recommend for or against seeing it is something I find more difficult than reviewing it.

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